The rewards and costs of sophistication
A friend’s father, a middle-aged midwesterner, remembers the first time he tasted spaghetti. I can only imagine crossing such a vast frontier; I wonder what it felt like. Once he’d surmounted the instinctive fear of strangeness—once the adult part of his brain had insisted that the resemblance to worms was purely coincidental—he must have struggled briefly with the technology: someone must have shown him how to twirl the noodles on his fork, how to suck up stray strands. Once he’d learned to get the food into his mouth, how did it taste? And did that experience—the culinary equivalent of stout Cortez’s first glimpse of the Pacific—presage a lifetime of such discoveries? Did he foresee, with that first bite, that modernity would deliver to his doorstep one centuries-old gastronomic tradition after another, like kings bearing exotic gifts? What did he think of Chinese?
Societies supposedly pass through three stages, from primitive to civilized to decadent. (The United States, runs the joke, is the first to skip directly from step one to step three.) Immigrant cuisines pass through such stages too. That first Italian meal my friend’s father ate: I’ll bet the noodles were overcooked and mushy, the sauce sweet as ketchup. And I’ll bet it didn’t matter at all, because tasting something new and wonderful is perhaps the greatest pleasure eating has to offer.
Ethiopian food has been widely available in some U.S. cities for a couple decades, give or take, but it still has the kick of unfamiliarity, for me at least: it’s not just another entry in the familiar litany of do-you-feel-like-Mexican-Chinese-Indian-or-Thai? An Ethiopian meal is served family-style on a big round piece of flat bread, called injera. The bread is spongy and has a slightly sourdough flavor; you tear pieces off and use them to pick up the food with a pinching gesture. The novelty of this method, and of the distinctive flavors—the spicy berbere curries and the softer tumeric-based dishes—has not yet worn off. And because of that, my appreciation of Ethiopian food has been eager and relatively unsophisticated. As long as the beef isn’t too stringy I’ve never been moved to make fine distinctions between one Ethiopian restaurant and another.
Until now. The first time a friend took me to Oakland’s Café Colucci, a month ago, I learned the difference between Ethiopian food and really good Ethiopian food. It’s a distinction that never would have occurred to me before. Ethiopian food in the United States, in other words, is making its way from primitivism into its civilized phase.
Since then, whenever I’m eating at East Bay friends’ houses, I’m pushing for Ethiopian, offering to pick it up and bring it over. When you get Ethiopian to go, it’s hard to get it out of the Styrofoam containers, which are padded with injera, and onto a plate. Eating straight out of the to-go tray works fine.
The things I insist on getting every time are gomen be sega and shrimp tibs. Gomen be sega is tender beef and collard greens, sauteed in butter that’s been spiced with garlic, ginger, and onions. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that garlic, ginger, and onions cooked up in butter is delicious: on paper it sounds like the Platonic ideal of delicious. What is remarkable is that the flavor of this buttery deliciousness is distinctively Ethiopian: why hasn’t the rest of the world been making this? The collard greens, which often dominate dishes with their bitterness, have been softened, tempered—civilized. The shrimp tibs, meanwhile, is a spicy, tangy shrimp-and-vegetable sautée that’s essentially the greatest stir-fry you’ve ever eaten.
For most cuisines, the primitive stage is characterized by heavy and often sugary sauces poured indiscriminately over various things. Most Ethiopian restaurants will serve you chicken or beef smothered in berbere sauce—a thick red sauce made from a paste of spices and herbs, blending the sharp (cayenne pepper, paprika) and the cool (fenugreek, cardamom). Until I started going to Café Colucci, that was fine with me, because berbere sauce is unlike anything else, and when I’m presented with novelty and deliciousness at once, I’m not going to get all upset about the failure of the constituent parts of a dish to cohere into a unified whole or any crap like that.
But Café Colucci has made that simplistic enthusiasm unsustainable. The berbere sauce is deeper and richer, blending the ingredients in a more complex way. The beef and chicken are more flavorful. The doro alicha—big pieces of chicken in a mild, creamy sauce—is so plainly about chicken, about what kinds of tastes it can absorb into itself, that the primitivistic idea of chicken as a mere vehicle for some unrelated flavor comes to seem unacceptably crude.
This is civilization’s real discontent: as we cultivate new and heightened sensibilities, more refined ways to see and hear and taste the world, the old pleasures lose their power. Café Colucci has educated my palate, civilized me, and now I have to go to Oakland when I crave Ethiopian; the restaurants on my side of the bay have lost their luster. When we gain sophistication, we lose our simple thrill at the shock of the new. With every gift, a price. Worth paying, in this case.